When the offseason began, the Detroit Tigers targeted a right-handed hitting outfielder in free agency. But they didn’t stop at the major-league level.
In the majors, the Tigers acquired Matt Vierling in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. In the minors, president of baseball operations Scott Harris went with a player he knew from his former job — general manager of the San Francisco Giants — and signed former Giants prospect Diego Rincones.
Harris targeted the 23-year-old pure hitter as a low-risk, high-reward addition.
“It makes me happy to know that I’m going to play for someone that previously knows me and knows my game,” Rincones said through an interpreter. “It makes the transition a lot smoother and easier. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play for someone that’s already familiar with me.”
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Rincones, who turns 24 in June, reached minor-league free agency after the 2022 season. The Giants chose not to add him to their 40-man roster, which wasn’t surprising, and forced him to decide his future on the open market.
At first, Rincones felt nervous.
Then, he viewed the change of scenery as an opportunity.
“Mentally, I prepared myself knowing that day would come for me to leave my initial club and sign with a different club,” Rincones said. “When that day came, I was ready for the transition to the Tigers.”
It takes six seasons in the minors without a spot on the 40-man for players to become minor-league free agents. In his time in the Giants organization, Rincones hit .284 with 44 home runs, 133 walks and 252 strikeouts over 458 games. His numbers in the Venezuelan Winter League are a bit sharper, however: .316 with 16 homers, 36 walks and 44 strikeouts over 137 games.
The Tigers were one of many interested teams.
“The great thing is that he was a free agent and only 23,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers’ vice president of player development. “I think that’s pretty exciting. He’s got a lot of at-bats under his belt. We still feel like there’s some room to grow and develop the hit tool and power tool and be a good right-handed option for us at the upper levels.”
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Rincones’ strengths are highlighted by above-average contact skills and average power. It’s not all upside, however: He is a poor defender in the outfield (despite a strong and accurate arm) and has recently taken a hyper-aggressive approach at the plate. Over the past two years, down-and-in pitches were ideal for his swing to create damage.
In 2021, Rincones hit .294 with 15 homers, 26 walks and 56 strikeouts over 77 games for High-A Eugene (25 games) and Double-A Richmond (52 games). Before that season, he hadn’t hit more than seven home runs in a minor-league season, so he focused on his strength and conditioning.
“The thing that influenced the 2021 season was always being in connection with my coaches,” Rincones said. “I always asked my coaches what I could do better, how I could change my work or my mechanics. Because I was connected with the coaching staff, and because I worked on the suggested improvements, that allowed me (to) prosper the way I did that year.”
In 2022, Rincones suffered a power-hampering wrist injury early in the season. In April and May, he hit .176 with zero home runs and a .426 OPS through 32 games. Beginning in June, he hit .302 with 10 homers and an .835 OPS through his final 59 games.
He finished the season with a .258 batting average, 10 homers, 16 walks and 48 strikeouts across 91 games for Double-A Richmond.
The biggest difference between the past two seasons?
Rincones cranked up his aggressiveness.
“I’m interested to talk to him,” Garko said. “All of us are interested to get him in the cage and talk him through his approach a little more. He’s so good at putting the ball in play, so I don’t think he should be afraid to work deep into counts. I want to talk to him about his approach.”
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His swing rate increased from an average 46.6% in 2021 to an extreme 55.5% in 2022, and his chase rate worsened from 26.4% in 2021 to 34.2% in 2022. Simply put, Rincones swung at more pitches, and in doing so, his swing decisions were significantly worse than previous seasons. Accordingly, his walk rate decreased from 8.2% in 2021 to 4.4% in 2022.
His strikeout rate, however, improved from 17.7% in 2021 to 13.2% in 2022, but that could be attributed to his aggressiveness, too. Since he swung at more pitches, he didn’t take as many called strikes and limited strikeouts in the process.
Last season, Rincones averaged 3.44 pitches per plate appearance. (For comparison, Tigers prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy, acquired from the Atlanta Braves and lauded for his elite plate discipline, averaged 4.36 pitches per plate appearance.)
“We’ll talk with him, just like everybody else, about some of those pitches on the edge that are balls early in the count,” Garko said. “Maybe letting those go and working deeper in the count and looking for something in the heart (of the plate). But he’s had a lot of success. We want to let him be himself, let him hit and try to support him in areas where we feel like there’s still some growth.”
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Rincones found success in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason.
He tried to clean up his defense — hoping to avoid a designated hitter role in the future — while showcasing his potential on offense, hitting .302 with nine home runs, 18 walks and 17 strikeouts in 55 games for Bravos de Margarita.
His 42 RBIs ranked third the league.
“I feel like my strengths are focused within the batter’s box and zoning in as a batter knowing that I have the strength and capabilities to be a good batter,” Rincones said. “I always recognized it in myself, ever since I was a kid, that I had the ability to have control with my hands and wrists, and having the vision to hit the ball and put it where it needs to be.”
In later November, Rincones finished runner-up to Ronald Acuña Jr., a three-time All-Star, in the LVBP Home Run Derby. The caliber of pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League is subpar, and pitchers don’t usually possess high-end velocity. Still, Rincones walked more often than he struck out, put the ball in play and flashed power.
Contact, power and plate discipline are all things the Tigers think he can do at the upper levels, but only if he recalibrates his approach.
Rincones might be ticketed for Triple-A Toledo to start the 2023 season. He will report to Lakeland, Florida, for minor-league spring training in February, once he completes the work visa process, as he continues his journey to the big leagues in a new organization.
“He’s young, but he’s got a pretty proven track record of hitting from level to level,” Garko said. “Right-handed, upper-level outfielder was something we targeted, and we found one that can add to our group and really help us. With Scott coming over from the Giants, he knew the person, the makeup and the work ethic. That’s how it came to be.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.